fbpx Among the most promising leaders of a rising generation: At Harvard Kennedy School, members of the active duty military and veterans gain and contribute in unique ways | Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard Kennedy School, because of its mission to train public leaders and its depth of expertise in the study of defense and international security, has always had a particularly strong relationship with the U.S. Armed Forces. This relationship is mutually beneficial. The School has provided its expertise to branches of the U.S. military, and it has given military personnel (active and veteran) access to Harvard’s education and training. But this relationship has also provided the School with the unique perspectives of students with military experience, and it has helped bridge the past divide between civilian and military culture.

Financial aid is a critical factor in providing an opportunity for veterans and active duty military members to enroll in programs at the Kennedy School. A historic new gift totaling $7.5 million from the Debra and Leon Black Family Foundation will do more still by providing funding to enroll 25 veterans or active duty military each year to the Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Business School.

“Our experience at the Kennedy School is that veterans and active duty personnel not only bring a maturity and dedication to our classrooms, but also are among the most promising leaders of a rising generation,” says David Gergen, public service professor of public leadership, director of the Center for Public Leadership, and a Navy veteran. “As a community, we can take pride in the fact that our veterans have become allies with so many other social innovators and public servants studying at the University.”

Harvard University as a whole has long history with America’s military. Tens of thousands of alumni, men and women, have served in the armed forces of the United States, and more than 1,350 have died in its wars. Harvard alumni have been the recipients of 18 Medals of Honor—more than any other university other than the U.S. military academies. And the University has also long welcomed military service members and veterans from other countries.

The University’s relationship with the military changed at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969 when Harvard’s faculty voted to remove support from the Reserve Officers Training Corp—ROTC—on campus. Recently, under the leadership of Harvard President Drew Faust, the ROTC program was reinstated in 2011, and the Kennedy School’s relationship with the military continues to grow more robust each year.

Top graduates of the military academies are given the opportunity to attend, as do many who have completed their service and are looking to prepare themselves for a new career. The National Security Fellows program brings military officers to the Kennedy School for 10-month research fellowships, while other executive education programs, such as the Senior Executives in National and International Security, and the Senior Executive Fellows program, bring distinguished military leaders to the School for shorter periods.

The benefits flow to the individuals, School, community, and, more broadly, the military itself.

Ashley Olds MC/MPA 2019, a U.S. Army captain, came to the Kennedy School as she transitioned from being a pilot to a military strategist.

“Professionally, HKS has given me the tools to look at complex problems from various perspectives and come up with creative solutions,” Olds said. “I know I will leave here better able to make valuable contributions in my future assignments.”

Brad DeWees, a PhD public policy candidate and U.S. Air Force major, wanted to come to an institution that “broadly construes what it means to be a public servant, and that also broadly construes what solutions to public problems look like.”

“In the military, as in many other organizations, we tend to filter problems through our own habits and past experiences, which can lead to a military-centric set of solutions to problems,” DeWees said. “At HKS, the range of past experience is so extensive that solutions run the gamut. I wanted my development as an officer to include being in rooms with such a diverse range of skills and ways of thinking.”

The presence of those with military experience also brings value to the School, observed Dana Born, lecturer in public policy, co-director of the Center for Public Leadership, and a retired Air Force brigadier general. “It creates a wonderful learning opportunity with many diverse experiences and perspectives,” she said. 

Jason Halligan (MPP/JD 2018), a former Army infantry officer now working as a lawyer in Lexington, Kentucky, agrees. Extensive leadership training and enormous responsibility at a relatively young age gives military officers valuable insights. “Our classmates were very receptive,” he said. "I found veterans were really valued for their experience."

“I hope I was able to contribute,” said Olivia Volkoff (MPP 2018), a Navy veteran. “But I can say from observing and benefiting from the contributions of other veterans in class that veterans are able to offer a unique perspective particularly based on their real-life leadership experience and often being in the middle of geopolitical events.”

The benefits flow back to the military too. Born says that research projects conducted here by active duty officers on matters including mental health, artificial intelligence, language training, cyber and space policy have had real impact.

And there’s great value in exposing officers to new ways of thinking, says Eric Rosenbach (MPP 2004), lecturer in public policy, co-director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and former Army intelligence officer.

 “It’s really important for there to be a place like the Kennedy School, where military officers can leave their service, take a break, get exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new tools of analytic methodology, and then go back and bring some of those lessons with them,” said Rosenbach, who also served as Pentagon chief of staff from 2015 to 2017. “They need exposure to nontraditional military perspectives and thoughts.”

Exposure to other perspectives is also important at the School, and outside the classroom. The presence of students with military experience has helped bridge a broad divide between the civilian and military world. That bridge can be built simply by social interaction.

Dave Dauphinais MPA/MBA 2018, a Navy veteran, came to Harvard thinking he might have to justify his decision to serve. He said he never had to do that once. “I like to think that I tried to provide a degree of understanding,” he said. “I tried very hard to ensure that my colleagues’ perceptions of the military were what I would wish they would be.”

He and others found the School and particularly the Center for Public Leadership, helped create a community for those from the military, including a biannual dinner in their honor. Veterans also sought to give back, starting Veterans Impact Day, an annual day of service that brings hundreds of veterans and civilians at the School together to work on local veteran needs.

But for many active service members and veterans, attending Harvard Kennedy School would not be possible without financial aid. Existing funding for the military, through programs like the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, only helps cover a portion of the costs. Many look to additional funding to cover the remaining gaps.

“I was lucky enough to be a fellow through CPL and the Belfer Center while at HKS as a Rubenstein Fellow, George Fellow, and Belfer IGA Student Fellow,” Volkoff said. “The CPL fellowships in particular were a critical decision factor to get me over the hurdle of ‘should I go back to school?’ The financial support was the tipping point that ultimately helped me decide to go back.”

Dauphinais, coming off 10 years of service and five combat deployments, considered getting a part-time job to cover the cost of his education. A Zuckerman Fellowship allowed him to immerse himself completely in his studies without having to worry about financial issues.

“A lot of veterans come to school with a family ... and that introduces a whole new level of need when it comes to financial resources,” Dauphinais said. “With a scholarship, I didn’t have to do that. It’s impossible to overstate how meaningful that was for me.”

While existing scholarships have been given to active military and veterans, the new Black Family Foundation Fellowships will be dedicated to that community. About 65 active duty and veteran students attend the Kennedy School each year. More than 80 typically attend HBS and more than 40 are enrolled at HLS.

The Debra and Leon Black Foundation, created in 1997 and active in funding research in medicine, the arts, and education, was moved to fund the military fellowship because the Black family had seen firsthand the transformative effect that financial aid has had in allowing members of the military to further their education.

“We are thankful to our benefactors who have been eager to support those who serve,” Gergen said. “This fall not only saw the creation of the Black Family Fellowships but also the opening of The National Veterans Memorial and Museum in the heartland of the country—Columbus, Ohio. Two of the key benefactors of the Kennedy School and CPL, Les and Abigail Wexner, were prime movers in the creation of the memorial.”